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Himalayan Snowcock Expedition with BAS

posted by Ryan O'Donnell at
on Monday, October 24, 2011 



This weekend, I led a Bridgerland Audubon Society field trip to the Ruby Mountains of Nevada in search of Himalayan Snowcocks. The Himalayan Snowcock is a large grouse, about the size of a Greater Sage-Grouse, that is adapted for living in the high rocky peaks of the Himalayan Mountains. In the 1960s and 1970s it was introduced to the Ruby Mountains of Nevada for hunting. The introduction was successful, and now this isolated mountain range is the only place outside of the Himalayas where this species can be seen. This species is sought after by the top birders of North America, and a visit to their habitat was depicted in the recent movie, The Big Year.



On Saturday morning, I met the other birders on this BAS trip in the hotel in Elko at 4:30 AM, and we were on the trail at the end of Lamoille Canyon a little after 5:30 AM. We arrived at the bench above Island Lake just as the sun was starting to hit the tops of the mountain peaks around us. At least four Himalayan Snowcocks were calling from various points around the cirque of cliffs. (The calls were all heard within about a half hour after sunrise, then the birds stopped vocalizing). Collectively, we saw two individuals, and the whole group had leisurely scope views at one individual as it foraged around a ledge in the cliffs. We also watched several flocks of Black Rosy-Finches flitting around the scree below the cliffs. We had found our target bird before 7:30 AM, so we spent a little while looking for more of them, and watching the mammals of the area, which included Mule Deer, Pika, and Mountain Goats. We then headed back down to the trailhead to start another hike.



The next hike we took was a loop to Lamoille Lake. Some parts of the trail were a bit icy, and the early parts of the trail were very birdy, so the hiking was slow. Clark's Nutcrackers were actively gathering and caching pine seeds in a large open stand of pines. We were impressed by the numbers here, and estimated about 300 individual birds in this 3.5 mile loop, most of which were in the first mile. It was fun to watch the nutcrackers extract the nuts from the cones with ease and fill their crops to the point it looked like they might pop, before flying off to a suitable place to hide them for the winter. Other species seen along this loop included Golden-crowned Kinglets, Red-breasted Nuthatches, a White-breasted Nuthatch, Brown Creepers, and three Dusky Grouse, among others. GCKI and BRCR are apparently pretty rare in northern Nevada: eBird has only five and four (respectively) previous records for these species in Elko County.  We ended back at the parking lot at about 3:00, tired from our early start and many miles on the trail at high elevation, but thrilled with finding many great birds including our target bird, the Himalayan Snowcock.








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3 Comments:
Blogger Tim Avery said...

Cool report, thanks for sharing Ryan. One thing I would point out is the comment you made:

"GCKI and BRCR are apparently pretty rare in northern Nevada: eBird has only five and four (respectively) previous records for these species in Elko County."

The lack of reports in eBird doesn't make those birds rare, it just means there are a lack of reports. The area you are talking about probably doesn't get birded all that often ( or have a fleet of birders who are regularly checking the habitat you would find those species in). Overall looking at the Elko county list in eBird it doesn't appear that it does get all that many reports.

I would imagine if you compared the number of checklists submitted for the area versus the number of times the birds are included in reports--those numbers would probably be pretty similar to a number of locations across northern Utah in terms of "birds per report".

But more so it is still the perception I get that the vast majority of birders ARE STILL NOT using eBird as a tool for keeping track of sightings.

eBird is such a small sample size of actual sightings which means some of the data isn't quite accurate. It's like looking at field guides and seeing maps for Utah that misrepresent a species occurrence in the state, because there is a lack of information about their range--simply because Utah is a large, underbirded state.

I think the data on eBird is useful, and is a great tool--and in some cases the data is fairly accurate. I think it also does give a pretty good picture of the regular occurrence of most species in an area.

Anyways, just some food for thought on what "reports in eBird" may represent, or misrepresent in terms of the abundance of a species.

Cheers
Tim

October 26, 2011 at 8:35 AM  
Blogger Ryan O'Donnell said...

Absolutely, Tim, "rarely reported" would have been a more precise way to say it than "rare".

Prompted by your comment, I decided to dig a little further into the details behind these numbers. I added up the total number of reports for Elko County at 1,047. So, that means that those two species have each been reported on less than one half of one percent of the checklists for the county. Certainly these species are under-reported in that county because of the relative scarcity of their habitat there (only a handful of "sky islands"; mostly desert). That is, they might be common in appropriate habitat, but their habitat in that part of the state is rare (AND rarely birded). However, even if one limits the scope of consideration to just the three eBird hotspots in Lamoille Canyon, ours was the first checklist to report either of those species out of 33 complete checklists, which equals about 3%. I think that's still probably lower than the frequency of those species in similar habitat in Utah, but the data available so far may not be convincing. For example, at Tony Grove Lake in Cache County, BRCR have been detected on 7 of 49 checklists (14%) and GCKI have been on 6 of 49 (12%). Dealing with detectability of those species in different habitats and by different observers is another issue entirely. I'll leave that one to the ornithologists. . . .

Thanks for your thoughts,
Ryan

October 26, 2011 at 3:23 PM  
Blogger Mike Resch said...

Great story! I'm thinking about heading to the Ruby Mountains this summer to try to look for the Himalayan Snowcock, and was looking for some advice or even a guide to go with me. Can you point me in the direction of someone who might be able to help?

Many thanks -

Mike Resch
mresch8702@aol.com
www.statebirding.blogspot.com
Pepperell, MA

March 3, 2013 at 6:44 PM  

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